“If Mills didn’t have that phony positive test, you mean, at the beginning of the year, it would have been very, very interesting.”
Stanford head coach David Shaw ’95 was asked postgame of his team’s third straight win, all on the road, what the season would have looked like if senior quarterback Davis Mills had not been held out of the season opener against Oregon and the week in the lead up to the loss to Colorado with what was later called a “testing protocol error.”
As it stands, Stanford (3-2, 3-2 Pac-12) is over .500 for the first time since the 2019 season opener with its 27-24 win over Oregon State (2-3, 2-3 Pac-12) in Reser Stadium.
The offense was expected to click this season, but the weekly improvements from the defense have been notable. Stanford’s first two opponents dropped 35. Since then, opponents have been held to 23, 26 and 24, respectively.
Twice, the Beavers were on the cusp of a game winner. With a little over seven minutes to play and trailing by three, Oregon State had a first down on the 11 yard line but were forced to kick when a fourth-and-two became a fourth-and-seven after a delay of game.
After fifth year kicker Jet Toner knocked through what would become the game-winning field goal for the second year running, Oregon State again found itself deep in Stanford territory. With half a minute on the game clock, senior outside linebacker Gabe Reid popped the ball out of the hands of Beavers quarterback Chance Nolan, who was nearing field goal territory for the Beavers. Fifth year inside linebacker Curtis Robinson snatched the bouncing ball out of the air to seal the win.
“I kind of blacked out a little on that last play,” Robinson said. “Gabe Reid did an excellent job getting that ball out. I just happened to be the lucky guy that was right there to scoop it up.”
Both Robinson and Shaw credited the work that began that started in the preseason. Defensive coordinator Lance Anderson, who also works with the outside linebackers, and inside linebacker coach Eric Sanders both scream “get the ball out” in practice. Stanford has wanted more turnovers and the linebackers have been working on generating those types of plays every day in practice. The coaches instill the mentality by celebrating when it happens.
“It’s one of the things that just doesn’t happen in crunch time in the game, it’s something that comes second nature to our guys because we work it so much,” Shaw said.
For Robinson, it was the fourth time he recorded his career-high of nine tackles but his first career fumble recovery. Reid notched a career high in tackles (8) and his first career forced fumble.
The biggest win for the defense was limiting the damage of running back Jermar Jefferson. For the first time in 2020, the Oregon State ball carrier was held below the century mark, as Stanford surrendered just 80 yards on 18 carries.
“He’s a great player, we give him a ton of respect,” Shaw said. “But for us to keep him under 100 yards, that was a big deal.”
“He’s a great player, my hat is definitely off to him,” Robinson said. “We love that challenge. In the OLB room we have a mantra, ‘We want it harder.’ We want you to make it harder on us and we thank you for that. So we went into this game, we knew we were playing one of the best backs in the league if not in the country.”
To do so, Stanford needed contributions from the entire roster. Senior free safety Noah Williams had a career best six tackles. Sophomore inside linebacker Levani Damuni set a career high with 10. Shaw specifically noted junior cornerback Donjae Logan, who stepped in and recorded a career-high four tackles. Logan was also used as an example, ahead of National Signing Day on Wednesday, of the type of high-character people Stanford wants.
“Our calling card is our effort,” Shaw said. “For this team to come back, being on the road these last few weeks. To be on a three game winning streak, facing all kinds of odds. We talk so much about character, recruiting the right guys.”
The first half was, in Shaw’s estimation “probably as poorly as we’ve played all year.”
The struggles were on both sides of the ball. On offense, Stanford had just nine first half points, including a botched point after attempt. On defense, Nolan had completed 11-of-16 passes for two scores.
“As a team and as especially as the defense we were a little flat,” Robinson said. “We woke up in that second quarter for sure.”
The defense was saved by its ability to get off the field when needed. Oregon State converted just six of its 14 third down attempts, which has been a harbinger for Cardinal success all year. The offense was saved by its execution, which allowed sophomore running back Austin Jones to hit his stride.
“We missed some blocks the first half that were just so hard, we made those blocks the second half and got Austin a couple of nice creases,” Shaw said. “When we give that guy a crease, he can make some big plays.”
Jones ran 22 times for 126 yards but could not find his eighth rushing touchdown of the season. Instead, Mills rushed for two on the ground.
Stanford’s second half turnaround and defensive improvements set the stage for Toner’s game winner. It was 39 degrees in Corvallis when Toner, for the second time in as many years, won the game with a 39-yard field goal. For Toner, it marked a redemption arc that began with a four field goal miss outing the last time he made a trip to the state — to play Oregon in Week 1.
Stanford’s struggles in that game without Mills, and without Walker Little and Paulson Adebo, both of whom opted out of the season, are why Shaw called this season the “ultimate ‘what if?’” With 12 games, this Stanford team may have been something special.
Instead, the displaced Cardinal will travel down to Southern California for practices ahead of its final regular season game.